County Jail Deaths Don’t Matter in San Diego

by on November 17, 2017 · 1 comment

in San Diego

The decision of the county’s police oversight group to not look into the deaths of twenty-odd human beings should serve as a reminder of how true justice is a much rarer commodity than most people realize.

As part of my research into the upcoming elections for County Sheriff and District Attorney, it’s been made clear to me that oversight of the agencies vested with the power of arrest and the administration of justice is largely an illusion.

On one level this is about the frailties of humans; peer pressure to maintain the integrity of the tribe in the face of constant threats. The unspeakable cruelties of injustice are seemingly compartmentalized away from public view so the ongoing–and often misguided–crusade against crime can continue.

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On Tuesday, Citizens’ Law Enforcement Review Board agreed with a staff recommendation, dismissing investigations into 22 instances of people dying in county detention facilities or while being taken into custody.

Russell Hartsaw, Evan Kwik, Hugo Barragan, David Lee Brown, Aaron Stitt, Lionel Silva II, Rosemary Summers, Sebastian Zatarain, Zdzislaw Bieruta, Kristopher Nesmith, ‘Bowman’, Robert DeLeon, Martin Mora, Hector Lleras, Jerry Cochran, Scott Hillen, Simon Hubble, Sergio Valenzuela, Martin Doza, Nicholas Medel, Ruben Nunez, and Heron Moriarty are all dead and gone.

The majority killed themselves, according to reports. A few died of what were reported to be natural causes. And a handful were killed when police used deadly force.

Some relatives of the deceased are not satisfied with the official version, and the county is currently facing at least six lawsuits involving jail deaths. Since March 2015, more than $6 million has been paid out in settlements relating to fatalities while in custody.

County Jail Lobby. Credit: Flickr / 888bailbond

There will be no second look at these deaths because of a statutory (the California Public Safety Officers Bill of Rights) one-year time limitation on investigations ending up with an officer being disciplined for misconduct had passed, according to CLERB. The cases were closed via the “Summary Dismissal” option, meaning “the Review Board lacks jurisdiction or the complaint clearly lacks merit.”

Reporter Kelly Davis broke the story at Voice of San Diego:

Many of the cases being dismissed involve serious allegations brought to light by civil lawsuits and media reports, including that law enforcement officials ignored repeated suicide threats from mentally ill jail inmates and a juvenile detainee, and used excessive force during arrests.

A number of experts said the rule being used to justify the dismissals shouldn’t apply to CLERB, and similar groups in the state that exist to monitor law enforcement don’t interpret the rule that way.

Anthony Finnell, executive director of Oakland’s Citizens’ Police Review Board, said his board issues decisions “even if we miss the … deadline.”

Here’s the Union-Tribune’s Jeff MacDonald, reporting after the CLERB met in closed session on Tuesday night:

Relatives of some of the deceased told The San Diego Union-Tribune earlier this week they disagreed with the decision to close the cases without completing the panel’s review.

Police oversight groups said completing the independent investigations is important because the findings can help improve police responses and practices, even in cases in which no officer misconduct is found.

The 12-month time limit invoked by the county is contained in the Public Safety Officers Procedural Bill of Rights. Officials have yet to explain why the Government Code section is being enforced now when all 22 cases exceeded the 12-month allowance months or years ago.

In other words, the CLERB’s reasoning amounts to ‘those lives aren’t worth a second look because we have an excuse.’

The Union-Tribune’s editorial board (which didn’t realize these were not the first bunch of CLERB cases to be dismissed) voiced their disapproval:

This is outrageous and the board should reconsider its decision. If it needs more resources, it should request them, not scuttle investigations into why people died in county care. That is insulting to victims’ family members and only reduces the likelihood of improved responses and practices.

Even more shameful is this: The mostly termed-out county Board of Supervisors had money to pad its own pay and pensions this year but not to probe deaths that occurred on the county’s watch.

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The Citizens’ Law Enforcement Review Board “receives and investigates complaints about the conduct of Sheriff’s deputies and probation officers employed by the County of San Diego.”

A 1990 ballot initiative led to the creation of the agency which employs two full-time investigators, has subpoena power and publishes summaries of its findings.

The last two CLERB executive officers have resigned facing charges of mismanagement stemming from a backlog of unresolved cases. In 2016, five separate cases containing twenty allegations were summarily dismissed due to a failure to complete the investigations.

It certainly seems like the CLERB is more window dressing than an investigative agency.

The current executive director of the Republican Party, Jason Gascon is also a member of the CLERB. Delores Chavez-Harmes, the Board’s Vice Chair is president of the Valley Center branch of the Republican Women’s Federation. (h/t Kelly Davis/Dave Maass)

The local GOP has regularly endorsed current Sheriff Bill Gore, whose duties include oversight of the county jail system when he’s not too busy making TV commercials for his pal Darrell Issa.

What we have here is a case of the fox guarding the chicken coop.

On the other hand, at least the CLERB has a functioning (volunteer) board.

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The City of San Diego’s Community Review Board on Police Practices is having a hard time getting a quorum, with only 12 official members listed out of the 23 who are supposed to serve.

I’ve been told Mayor Kevin Faulconer has yet to act on any of the 17 applicants over the past year who have been vetted to join the board.

And then there’s the matter of the 155 cases (countywide) of officer-involved shooting deaths, not one of which merited a prosecution from the San Diego County District Attorney’s office.

Either there’s a ‘Blue Wall’ surrounding law enforcement and prosecutors in San Diego or we’ve got the most perfect humans ever to serve in these capacities.

I get it that fighting crime is a dangerous job, and things are not always (no pun intended) black and white. But all these (mostly fine) people are having their salaries paid by us, and we deserve an honest appraisal of their performance.

There are opportunities for positive change in San Diego.

The City Council is hoping for some insight into the process of hiring a new chief of police once Shelley Zimmerman retires in March 2018.

They need to listen to Alliance San Diego, Mid-City CAN, and the ACLU San Diego & Imperial Counties, as they call on the Mayor to listen to the community and to open up the process by, among other things:

  • Identifying participants in the search and selection panels
  • Having an equal number of community members adding youth, who reflect the diversity of San Diego, to the panel tasked with the second series of interviews
  • Disclosing the identities of the three finalists for the position
  • Allowing community members to meet the final three candidates and ask them questions

Incumbent County Sheriff Bill Gore is up for re-election this year, and he’s being challenged by Dave Myers, a 32 year veteran of the department campaigning on a pledge to make the department more responsive to and representative of the communities it serves. I’ll be posting a profile of Myers and the issues surrounding the county’s role in law enforcement in the coming week.

When former District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis stepped down this year, her carefully groomed replacement–Summer Stephan– was appointed to the post by the Board of Supervisors. She immediately gained all the advantages of incumbency, along with ensuring the current prosecutorial practices would continue unabated.

Current prosecutorial practices in the DA’s office include protecting the ‘bad apples’ on the San Diego Police Department, like the officer who perjured himself to frame homeless human Tony Diaz for sleeping in the back of his truck in violation of a city prohibition against “vehicle habitation.”

Despite video and court transcripts providing indisputable evidence, the case remains under ‘internal investigation.’ Cases like these are typically put off until it is hoped the public has forgotten about them under the current regime at the DA’s office.

Stephan is being challenged by progressive public defender Geneviéve Jones-Wright, who represents an opportunity for San Diegans to elect a District Attorney who seeks justice for all members of the community. Her story and more detail on the race for County District Attorney will also be published in this space next week.

These elections will both be decided in the primary on June 5, 2018.

Now is the time to start paying attention.

From San Diego Free Press


{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Avatar Nanci Kelly November 17, 2017 at 12:20 pm

Thanks so much for this important, clear information. I was preparing to make follow-up phone calls after receiving a “non-answer” from the Board of Supervisors office, and this article is of great help. Looking forward to future, related articles, particularly as the police chief selection and election approach.

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